Peru Judges Quiz American Over Guerrilla Friend

Reuters -- 29 March 2001

by Tania Mellado

LIMA, Peru - U.S. citizen Lori Berenson, granted a retrial after being jailed for life in Peru on terrorism charges in 1996, said on Thursday a convicted Marxist rebel had been coerced into testifying against her at her first trial.

During the fourth session of her public retrial, judges grilled Berenson on what police said was some of the most important testimony in the case -- her relationship with Panamanian Pacifico Castrellon, serving a 30-year sentence in Peru.

Castrellon was arrested in 1995 in Peru and accused of participating in a thwarted plan by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) to raid Congress. He said Berenson had put him in contact with MRTA leader Nestor Cerpa.

Berenson's defense lawyers have always argued that her conviction and life sentence by hooded military judges in 1996 was based on unreliable evidence from Castrellon, who is scheduled to be cross-examined in the Berenson retrial in coming weeks.

Berenson's new trial is the first time she has been able to defend herself in court. Alberto Fujimori, then president, overturned her sentence last August and she now faces a 20-year term on lesser charges of ``terrorist collaboration.''

``I thought Castrellon probably had been pressured (by police),'' Berenson told the three-judge panel in San Juan de Lurigancho prison in fluent Spanish. Peru has no jury system.

Asked by senior Judge Marcos Ibazeta about her relationship with Castrellon, the 31-year-old former social activist acknowledged they were friends. ``There was a certain kind of friendship,'' she said.

Dressed in a red pullover that she knitted in prison, she appeared more tense than on previous days, when she often smiled in front of the judges.

Berenson was granted a new trial after Washington and human rights groups pressured the Peruvian government, arguing the military trial had been a travesty. The trial is likely to put a spotlight on attempts by the country's interim government to reform Peru's much criticized justice system.

Most Peruvians, having suffered through fierce guerrilla wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have little sympathy for someone they see as an idealist mixed up with rebels.

Berenson's family have doubted she will get a fair trial in Peru, where courts are seen as corrupt and controlled by politicians. The trial resumes on Tuesday.